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Technology Breakthroughs, 2023

I recently picked up the current issue (Jan-Feb) of the MIT Technology Review, which focused on ten breakthrough technologies that they’re keeping an eye on for 2023. Overall, an interesting list. Here are the technologies that caught my attention.

Organs on demand There were several medical-related technologies, but the one I found most intriguing was the development of engineered organs on demand. And there’s a lot of demand out there. It’s estimated that there’s a waiting list for organ transplants in the US with 100,000 names on it. In 2022, nearly 7,000 people died while waiting for a transplant. Pig-to-human organ transplants have been the subject of research for decades, but it’s now getting closer to becoming a reality.

Several biotech companies are focusing on editing the DNA of pigs, removing molecules that aren’t as compatible with humans as they are with pigs, and tweaking the pigs by adding genes that make the animals more human like. So far, there’s only been one transplanted pig organ: a 2022 heart transplant in which the patient survived two months. (The man was willing to try this approach because, for a number of reasons, he was ineligible for a human heart transplant.) Formal trials are expected to get underway in 2024.

More exciting to me are the engineered solutions.

Researchers are in the early stages of exploring how to engineer complex tissues from the ground up. Some are 3D-printing scaffolds in the shape of lungs. Others are cultivating blob-like “organoids” from stem cells to imitate specific organs. In the long term, researchers hope to grow custom organs in factories.

This is a way off, but it will make more organs available to help take care of all those on long waiting lists.

Given the business I’m in, I was naturally drawn to the headline A chip design that changes everything. What’s going to change everything is the adoption of the RISC-V open standard, which the Tech Review believes will topple the “power dynamics” that have dictated that chip makers producing off-the-shelf chips licensed the designs they use from a couple of sources (Intel and ARM). The RISC-V design is an open standard, which eliminates any licensing charge.

RISC-V specifies design norms for a computer chip’s instruction set. The instruction set describes the basic operations that a chip can do to change the values its transistors represent—for example, how to add two numbers. RISC-V’s simplest design has just 47 instructions. But RISC-V also offers other design norms for companies seeking chips with more complex capabilities.

Remember when the signs outside McDonald’s used to advertise how many billions of hamburgers the chain had sold? Well, RISC-V chips are gaining traction, and “10 billion cores [have] already shipped.” They’re being used in a range of applications: “earbuds, hard drives, and AI processors.” In the not too distant future, they’ll be showing up in “data centers and spacecraft.” Stay tuned!

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched in late 2021. JWST is 100x more powerful than the Hubble Telescope. With a main mirror that measures 21 feet across (triple the width of the Hubble), giving it far greater resolution capability.

Every day, JWST can collect more than 50 gigabytes of data, compared with just one or two gigabytes for Hubble. The data, which contains images and spectroscopic signatures (essentially light broken apart into its elements), is fed through an algorithm…[which] turns the telescope’s raw images and numbers into useful information…

It is specifically designed to detect infrared radiation, allowing it to cut through dust and look back in time to a period when the universe’s first stars and galaxies formed.

JWST is up there, orbiting 1.5 million kilometers from earth. Scientists are using the data it’s sending back to figure out just what happened after the Big Bang. JWST’s mission sounds a lot like that of Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. May JWST “live long and prosper.”